by Rita Lorenzini
Food flavouring substances in the food industry is widespread: just having a look at the labels of many supermarket products, it is hard to find any without flavourings in the ingredient list, a part for a few food categories such as fresh fruit and vegetables, oils, or eggs. There are several companies specialized in the production of flavourings or flavouring cocktails ideal for any kind of food (meat, fish, dairy, bakery, confectionery, vegetable and fruit based foods, etc.). Despite the fact that flavourings are often positioned at the end of the ingredient list, their role in the product success is of utmost importance. In particular, products with prolonged shelf life need flavouring in order to keep a satisfactory and unaltered organoleptic profile up to the expiry date. Even a product prepared with the best ingredients will struggle to overcome the “time test” without the right flavouring, for a simple technical reason: industrial processes (heating, mixing, etc.) and long shelf lives inevitably cause loss of aroma in processed foods, therefore it is necessary to counteract this loss adding appropriate flavouring substances in order to gain consumers appeal and respond to the flavour they want or that they expect. In fact, flavour is one of the main factor affecting consumers judgment (like or dislike) when choosing a food. It is not an overstatement to say that the success of some famous products is due not only to right marketing operation but also to spot-on flavouring. The flavour profile of a certain food is often due to a mixture of tens of different molecules (e.g. strawberry flavour is composed by over 200 molecules, 600 are those characterizing chocolate, and 900 those of the complex aroma of roasted coffee), chemically classified as terpenoids, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, etc. They are often small and volatile molecules, being this characteristic necessary to reach our nose sensors and therefore emanate a strong aroma. The flavouring industry deals with identifying these molecules, extract them from natural sources and/or synthesize them in laboratory, and then sell them (or mixtures of them) to the food industry. Flavouring formulation is an art: it is too banal to say “strawberry aroma” since it is possible to create different notes as “mature strawberry”, “wild strawberry”, etc. In order to obtain a good aromatic profile, as similar as possible to the real natural one, it is necessary to use complex mixtures of substances, often very expensive (especially in the case of naturally extracted ones). On the other hand, usually very small quantities added to the food product are sufficient to obtain the desired effect, since our nose is very sensitive towards these molecules. A good flavouring mixture has also to take into account the nature of food matrix to which it has to be added: there are either hydrosoluble (e.g. for beverages) or liposoluble mixtures, liquid or powder formulations, etc. Sometimes heat resistance is needed, for cooked, pasteurized or sterilized products (e.g. bakery, jams, soups, meat or fish-based) that need to keep the flavour unaltered even after heat processing. In Europe, the regulatory aspects of flavourings is different compared other food additives. While all other additives are characterized by univocal “E-numbers”, to be declared in the product label, in the case of flavourings legislation has always been more “vague”. This is partly due to the obvious secrecy needed for special flavouring recipes, jealously kept by every food industry as the key of their products commercial success. Until a few months ago, the regulatory reference point in Europe was represented by Reg. EU 1334/2008 on “flavourings and certain food ingredients with flavouring properties for use in and on foods”. In October 2012 (empowered in April 2013) the new Reg. EU 872/2012 was issued. At the same time, also Reg. EU 873/2012 was issued, containing some transitory measures. Reg. EU 872/2012 introduces a new positive list of flavourings: all substances out of such list can no longer be used. This list is an important step forward towards transparency and consumers safety, because behind the list there has been a toxicological evaluation of the flavouring substances. The list contains over 2500 authorized substances, 400 of which are at the moment under further toxicological evaluation by EFSA (European Food Safety Authority). Nevertheless, it has to be said that there will be no immediate and tangible transformation, especially from the consumer’s point of view: the label ingredient list will still state “flavourings” with no chemical specification of the used substances, with only the distinction between “natural flavourings” if the substances are obtained by extraction from natural sources, and “flavourings” in all other cases. In fact, because of secrecy reasons, there are only a few producers willing to precisely state the flavouring substances, and when this is done, it is usually for marketing purposes in order to attract customers (e.g. “with natural vanilla flavouring”). Natural flavourings are perceived as safer and of superior quality compared to artificial flavourings, but this is not always the case, for several reasons. First of all, there are quite a few natural flavouring substances with some toxic effect at high doses, such as caffeine of coffee, coumarin of cinnamon, methyl eugenol of basil, menthofuran of mint, myristicin and apiol of parsley, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons generating during timber burning used for smoking fish or meat, cyanide of bitter almonds, estragole of fennel seeds, etc. Furthermore, solvents and additives have often to be used to extract flavourings from vegetable tissues, potentially leaving traces of those solvents in the final extract; for this reason, often natural-like flavourings, obtained in laboratory, have an higher safety profile compared to natural-extracted ones. Besides, natural flavourings can have some problems regarding the homogeneity of characteristics from batch to batch (very important for the food industry), depending on raw material quality, ripeness, geographical origin, conservation, extraction method, etc. Despite the new Reg. EU 872/2012 represents a good improvement regarding safeness of flavourings, some researchers put in doubt the method used by EFSA to establish the positive list: e.g. only a few substances (less than 10) have been excluded for their toxicity. Furthermore, average consumption of the flavouring substances by consumers has been established based on their production volumes as declared by industry: this estimate is considered inaccurate and not protecting enough sensitive categories of consumers such as infants and children. Industrial foods targeting children often contain flavourings, and this is the case not only for confectionery and snacks but also of biscuits, baby food and formula milk. This may cause a high oral exposure to these substances, since babies and children are growing fast, and ingest higher amounts of food and beverages in proportion to their body weight. Furthermore, often their diets are monotonous, with only few favourite foods. For all these reasons, babies and children reach dangerous levels of additives consumption more easily than adults.